“The first time they came in with guns, the second time a week later with guns and grenades. I was sorting out an evacuation and at the same time thinking my wife is over there towards the gunfire,” says Alex, recounting an occasion last year when the refugee camp in which he and Lois were based was attacked. “There were injuries and deaths on both occasions,” Lois adds. “One man we knew was killed.”
Such violence has become familiar since the conflict in South Sudan — largely forgotten in the West — erupted in December 2013 following a rift between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar.
At least 10,000 people have been killed since then as Machar’s rebel force seeks to topple President Kiir. Two million more have fled their homes. It has given an unhappy start to a nation created in July 2011, when a split with its northern neighbour Sudan was agreed after decades of conflict that claimed around 2.5 million lives.
But while many might flinch from entering the country, Lois, Alex and a third Londoner — former City hedge fund manager Damien Mosley — have all left their careers to work for the aid agency Medair. Lois, 31, who married Alex in 2009 after they met as students at Cambridge University, began work as a GP in Newham, but has now spent a year in South Sudan providing primary health care in areas in which medical provision is scant or absent.She recalls another incident when the Upper Nile State refugee camp, where she and her husband were working last year, was hit by the ethnically-targeted killing which has become common in the conflict.
“People were confined to base in every compound and another aid agency next to us had their compound surrounded. Five people were killed over the next few days. Three were dragged from their cars and executed.”
International aid workers were not targeted, but one of Lois’s local colleagues was forced to hide for 18 hours under a market-stall table.
“Even in the midst of all that we were most concerned about our colleagues,” Lois adds. “The primary fear is the physical danger to them. But it is stressful. I get really hot, which isn’t great in this temperature.” Her husband Alex, 30, who worked for MP Andrew Selous and the CBI before switching to international aid, is now co-ordinating the emergency relief teams which Medair deploys in South Sudan.
He also plays down the danger, but concedes that its effects are unavoidable. “I feel the blood in my mouth,” he says. “Then I feel really tired from the stress when the adrenaline stops.” The couple, whose home is in Greenwich, emphasise, however, that their desire to help the suffering overrides other concerns.
LOIS says she and her team save children’s lives by giving simple treatment for problems such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory infections that can be fatal in Africa. The threat posed by malaria can often be countered too.
“One of my saddest days in clinic was when we had a real scarcity of food and we knew that people in camp were really struggling for food,” says Lois. “One day we found children outside our nutrition centre opening wrappers on food sachets to lick them out when they were already empty.”
Alex says that the challenge now facing their Medair team is to tackle poor nutrition and health in areas where disease outbreaks or other problems emerge.
“We just went very close to the front line of the fighting,” he says. “The needs there are chronic. If we go in we will need canoes because it’s swampy. But providing life-saving care is a good way to spend your time.”
Mr Mosley is a 33-year-old economics graduate from Highbury, who worked for Credit Suisse and then for City hedge funds HBK, Thames River and FC before changing career.
He worked in Uganda training local charity staff in financial management, and recently arrived in South Sudan to manage Medair’s £17 million budget funding its aid work in the country.
He is now paid much less than the potential six-figure earnings he enjoyed in the City, but prefers the greater job satisfaction of his new life in Juba.
“There’s a lot you can do if you are imaginative and think of systems that you can put in place to make sure engineers and health professionals spend the money better,” he points out.
“If someone can give them forecasts and graphs to show where the money is going then they can budget much better. It’s part of a new era for charities — making sure they know where money is going to reduce wastage.”
He adds: “London was a lot of fun and my friends are still there. I would go out four nights a week and have a really big social life. But you are not looking more than six months ahead.
“With this work your focus is on an entire country and sometimes the whole world. It feels much more exciting. The quality of the work and the job satisfaction has gone through the roof.
“This is more stressful because of the responsibility. With a hedge fund you just have a fund to look after. Mistakes that you make here could cost lives because people might not get life-saving aid.”